TRANSPORT – Booking advice for the SNCF trains

SNCF is France’s national state-run railway company, and they are responsible for railway services throughout the country including the operation of France’s high-speed trains (TGV’s).

It is true that in France railway workers strike often, but they also offer a well-priced rail network that rivals many other countries, and I applaude their reductions in the use of fossil fuel.

The French Riviera is well served by the coastal train line, and offers a beautiful view of the Mediterranean so I frequently use the train.

Here are some offers that SNCF has introduced to assist tourists and locals alike to enjoy the train routes in this region:

INSTANTS V – SNCF now gives travellers the opportunity to combine train travel with tickets to concerts, sports events, festivals, theme parks and museums.  You reserve your seat for the event (seats you choose are blocked out for 15 minutes until your booking is complete) and/or your train travel, and pay for them in one transaction online.

The event options for south-east France were not great, notably Nice was not included which I found lacking as it is one of France’s major destinations, but I saw a range of booking options for music festivals and sports events across many other regions in France including Paris, Lyon and Toulouse.

I decided to give Instants V a trial booking run.

It is very easy to navigate – you can search by category (e.g. festivals) and city/region (e.g. Marseille) and specific dates.  Every test criteria I ran was quick and returned search results in less than 5 seconds.  The results can then be accessed to see the varying pricing structures, and a description of the event.

Price-wise, I trialled return train travel between Antibes and Marseille (choosing second class travel), and entry tickets to a football match in Marseille.  The train selection gave me 4 different departures there and back, and every seat option for the stadium from the cheapest tickets to most expensive.

The total cost was just over €75 which included return train tickets in second class, and the cheapest entry to the stadium.  I compared Instants V to driving to this event, and it priced about €25 more expensive to travel by car including the cost of road tolls, petrol, pay parking and stadium entry.

Instants V was a good option for:

– single travellers who don’t have transport and aren’t intending to rent a car

– travellers on a financial budget but not time-restricted either side of the event

– travellers who prefer train travel to avoid carparking issues at their destination

Book your Instants V via http://spectacles.voyages-sncf.com/?prex=ID_4D483B3BA8380

ZOU! Pass / Carte Isabelle – From 01 July to 30 September each year, SNCF offers the ‘ZOU ! Pass’ (previously the individual Isabelle Pass but now rebranded) which includes unlimited train travel in one day (excluding the TGV express trains) from anywhere on the French Riviera network including between Théoule-sur-Mer to Ventimille and Nice to Tende.  It can be purchased at train stations for €15 per person.  The ‘Carte Isabelle Famille’ is a ZOU! Pass for a family (available in summer months) and includes unlimited train travel in one day for 4 people (including 2 children under 16 years), cost €35 (pricing is correct as at 22 February 2014, subject to change).  These SNCF offers are excellent value if you intend to travel on many train trips in one day, also if you plan to take the scenic ‘Train des Merveille’s’ journey.

PASS TER + Marineland – SNCF offers a combined return train ticket in the region and entry to Marineland near Antibes.  An excellent option as you basically get the return train for free! The nearest train station to Marineland is ‘Biot’ just 200 metres away, and it was upgraded in 2013 to be accessible for all travelers. More information about the PASS TER + Marineland is on their website http://www.ter-sncf.com/Regions/Paca/Fr/Loisirs_Tourisme/Les_Offres_TER/Offres_Tarifaires/DetailOffre.aspx?TypePage=OFT&ofr_id=tcm:27-76070

Bon voyage!

Activities/Sightseeing – ANTIBES (Pain, Amour & Chocolat, 14-16 February 2014)

Pain, Amour et Chocolat – or Bread, love and chocolate – may seem like an odd choice of name for a festival for non-French people however these three things are very important in France.

phoca_thumb_l_Prodotti_esposti_2013%2025This local festival held in Antibes on the weekend of Valentines Day (14 February) has a theme based around love, and the market stalls sell products including confectionery, gifts such as ceramics and jewellery, bread, pâtisseries, chocolate and conserves.

 

phoca_thumb_l_Prodotti_esposti_2013%207This year’s programme also includes Italian marching bands, circus parades through the streets of old Antibes, workshops for children (designing chocolates and pizza making), a fashion show of hairstyles themed around love, a perfume-making workshop and an archery game with a prize to win a dinner for two at a local restaurant.

phoca_thumb_l_Prodotti_esposti_2013%2021What: Pain, Amour & Chocolat festival

When: 14-16 February 2014 from 10am-7pm

Where:  place Nationale, Antibes

Free entry (excluding purchases of any products !)

Tips:  Unfortunately, Antibes old town is not the best town for free street parking, but you can locate pay-per-hour carparking at various locations. The nearest pay-per-hour carparking facility is at Parking la Poste (avenue Paul Doumer), or the new underground parking at Antibes port but be aware pay-per-hour parking is pricey – around €6 for two hours.  Both carparking facilities are less than 5 minutes walk to the festival on flat, paved surfaces.  The closest accessible toilets to the festival are located at Hotel le Cameo on place Nationale, Café brasserie Le Vieil Antibes (rue Thuret) which is next to the fountain beside the festival, or automated public pay toilets are on rue Lacan opposite Appart’the (known locally as ‘The Tearooms’).

French social customs, etiquette and idiosyncrasies

The glamour of living in France

When I first told people I was moving to France to be with my partner they all oohed and aahed in awe – ‘Oh how fabulous, all that amazing food!’, ‘How lucky!  you will have all that cheese and wine to enjoy’ and so on.

I had visited France a handful of times before moving here permanently, so when I first arrived I still had the gloss and excitement of an unknown country to experience.

mmm French wine and cheese (image: vimbly)

mmm French wine and cheese (image: vimbly)

The reality of living in France

My experience quickly altered to culture shock as I realised I couldn’t speak the language fluently, and all the things I thought I loved about France were becoming a hindrance to my day-to-day life.

For example, the leisurely long lunch ‘oh-so-carefree-and-relaxed’ to a tourist, became annoying because all the retail stores were closed during this time.  How do people run errands or shop for goods during their lunch break if nothing was open??

Or, the one store in your local area that sold that one specific item had conveniently sold out.

The nearest store with a similar item is 30 minutes drive away….

But you couldn’t phone them to check if they had the item as they were closed during lunch, and you can’t speak French.

Sigh.

enjoy that leisurely lunch

enjoy that leisurely lunch

Go with the flow

Now, I have relaxed my attitude to the lifestyle here and while some days things still drive me bonkers (the queues at La Poste, or a busy supermarket with only 2 checkout counters open), life in France is filled with equal measures of humour and happiness.

My Top 20 tips to help tourists (or expats) understand French social customs, etiquette, and idiosyncrasies (note:  I take no responsibility for cultural misunderstandings that occur from this list!) :

1.  Do as the French do:  French people are generally quite formal in the way they act, greet each other, talk and socialise.

Very rarely you will experience loud, drunk, obnoxious French people rolling around the streets abusing other people.

Yes French people are friendly, but, French people don’t really chit-chat with strangers like you may experience in your home country.

Foreigners view the French as ‘stuck-up’ or ‘snobby’ but this is not true.  I find the French can be extremely polite.

French people expect proper civilised behaviour, especially in public areas and business dealings.

2.  Greetings: When you enter a store, or take a bus, greet the shop attendant/bus driver with ‘Bonjour Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle’ (or ‘Bonsoir’ if after 6pm).

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French people think you are disrespectful if you don’t offer a simple greeting, even if you think they did not see you enter the store.

Saying please is also courteous (S’il vous plait), and on leaving, say ‘Au revoir (goodbye)’ and/or ‘Merci’ (thank you).

Often you will hear them reply, ‘Bonne journée’ (good day, literally ‘have a good day’).

You do not have to be fluent in French when you come to France, but carry a simple French phrasebook and you will find learning and actively using these 4 phrases will help you a lot (hello / please / thank you / goodbye).

3.  Dress attire:  French people generally dress well.

Blazers, well-cut jeans or trousers, Breton stripes, hats, scarfs (they love a scarf here!), men with leather satchels and ‘man-bags’, women with gorgeous handbags, makeup and heels.

In fact, for scarf-lovers, here is a nifty video I found on ‘How to tie a scarf 16 ways’ that you can practise before you arrive in France!

French style is overall an effortlessly classic and tailored style.

Aside from avant-garde fashion, neon, loud graphic clothes or gothic/punk looks are not that common.

Tracksuits, hoodies, sports trainers are for sports fans only.

French mothers don’t do the school run in baggy track pants and Crocs shoes!

If you are a tourist, dress in smart casual attire to blend in.

Wearing a sports cap, crazy patterned shirt and trainers is a sure-fire target for standing out, especially for pickpockets on the lookout for easy prey.

'I'm a tourist, hello pickpockets'

‘I’m a tourist, hello pickpockets’

4.  Restaurant manners: If you are invited to a meal, it is good manners to not eat or drink until the host has said ‘Bon appétit’ and/or ‘Santé’ (cheers).

Keep your hands off the table, and if you are dining at a restaurant when you are ready to order put your menu down closed.

Do not ever click your fingers at the wait staff or yell ‘garçon’ to get their attention, this will guarantee they will avoid you like the plague.

If you are given bread and there is no side plate it is perfectly acceptable to just rest it on the table beside your main plate.

French waiters are not in the business to rush diners, so get used to a more casual approach to dining and the time it takes for your meal to arrive.

5. Un apéro / private dining: If you are invited to a meal at a private home, the safe option is to take a gift of chocolates.

chocolates are a nice gift

chocolates are a nice gift

Don’t take wine as the host will have chosen the wine already, and most probably will save your bottle for another time.

Flowers are a tricky gift as flowers in France symbolise different things – red roses (love), chrysanthemums (put on graves on All Saints Day), carnations (bad luck) etc so if you are set on taking flowers check with a florist first.

Avoid getting drunk.  Go home if you are not offered another drink.

6. La bise – the French air/cheek-kiss, it is such an iconic ‘French’ thing to do but don’t be nervous.

Take your cue from the French person as the number of kisses varies by region, and even what cheek to being with.

I really like this map infographic of the number of kisses you should aim for!

La bise map of France (infographic: AllSaintsLanguage)

La bise map of France (infographic: AllSaintsLanguage)

7.  Small talk:  Conversation-wise, it is generally fine to talk about the weather, family, children, life in general.

Under no circumstances talk about money or ask a person what job they do (as this can point to their salary).

Avoid politics and religion unless you like heated debates.

8.  Shopping hours: Never assume a store or business will operate at the exact hours on the ‘opening sign’ on their shop front.

Fermé = closed

Fermé = closed

In reality, store owners can return after lunch in their own time or close unannounced on weekends.

Generally, most businesses are closed a few hours during the middle of the day, and operate limited hours on weekends.

You will find very limited late night shopping (especially not 24-hour supermarkets or mall shopping that you find overseas) and be aware if you need to refuel your car, buy pharmaceuticals, get food after a flight arriving late at night – you may have to wait until the next day.

It is important to also note that a bank holiday in France can mean businesses close for 2-4 days, including the actual day of the bank holiday.

So, if a bank holiday falls on a Thursday you may find stores are closed the Thursday AND Friday also – this is called ‘faire le pont’, the French make a bridge to the weekend and it is perfectly accepted here.

9.  Language: Don’t assume everyone speaks English.

Try to speak French – even ‘Excusez-moi’ or ‘S’il vous plait’ before you can ask if they can help in English.

imagesCAUNU17Q (2)

10.  Queues:  French people can be oblivious about the concept of queueing.

Airports – yes, they queue.

Post offices, traffic jams, banks and supermarkets – sometimes they queue, sometimes every second person jumps in front of you.

Don’t take it personally, because when you get to the front of the queue it’s your turn to take as long as you like.

11.  Public toilets:  Carry your own tissues and travel hand sanitizer with you as they often don’t have toilet paper and soap.

For automated public toilets, carry small change for entry (between 30-50 centimes).

For attendants at public toilets, leave a few coins (30-50 centimes).

If you are desperate and must use the bathroom at a restaurant, it is courteous to at least buy a coffee (or similar) and say ‘Merci’ when you leave.

12.  Tips:  Tips are generally included at restaurants (the bill will say ‘service compris’), however it is customary to leave a few coins and to tip additionally for good service.

Tipping is acceptable for good service (image: ouest-france.com)

Tipping is acceptable for good service (image: ouest-france.com)

13.  Customer service:  The transition between countries is immense across the globe in the reality of customer service.

French stores don’t fight for your attention.

They don’t shower you in compliments with your choice.

They believe you walk in their store for a reason and you already know what you need.

Don’t be offended if you receive a ‘Bonjour’ from the sales assistant then you don’t see them again.

14.  Admiring beauty:  French men look at women.

A lot.

It’s a compliment, though it can be unsettling for tourists.

15.  Business dealings:  Don’t assume you will receive quick responses to emails or enquiries.

Many companies don’t have websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts so they are very traditional and conduct business face-to-face or via the telephone.

Believe it or not, many businesses first point of contact is by post or fax (Fax! who still owns a fax machine!).

Communication via post is still popular in France

Communication via post is still popular in France

Address everyone as ‘Monsieur/Madam/Mademoiselle’ until they are well known.

It is not in French culture to share with work colleagues compliments about how great you are.

If you arrange tradespeople, confirm and reconfirm exact times to meet and conduct the work required.

16.  Markets:  I love the markets in France.

Fruit, vegetables, cheeses, cured meats, olives, jams, oils, fresh herbs, flowers.

If you visit a market, don’t touch the produce before asking.

The stall seller’s are happy to answer questions – they are very proud of their products – so they may ask you when you intend to eat the produce as they will know which produce is ripest or best consumed for what date.

Marché Forville, Cannes

Marché Forville, Cannes

17.  Kids: French children are mostly well behaved, especially in restaurants.

If you have an active child (like mine!), probably best to dine out at their optimum time for calm eating than subject a busy restaurant to an overtired child running around the restaurant.

High chairs are not as common as I expected when I came to France.

Many restaurants have children’s menus, or are happy to split menu costs in half.

Baby changing facilities are few and far between compared to foreign countries – large department stores are your best bet for a clean bathroom area for diaper changes.

18.  Directions:  Signage in France can be confusing.

Street names are on the side of buildings, however major highway road signage is quite good.

If you ask a French person directions, they are usually helpful and willing.  And often wrong.

Telling you “It is not far, just straight ahead 200 metres on the right” often translates to walking for 30 minutes with no sense of direction.

Take a map, and if driving always have a Tom Tom/GPS.  Via Michelin is an excellent website for driving directions in France and has helped me with estimating toll costs.

19.  Coffee:  I used to drink my coffee quite milky before I came to France, but now I prefer ‘un café’ (a small black coffee/espresso).

Restaurants will understand what a cappuccino is, but don’t expect to see an exhaustive coffee menu.

One of my perks of French life - coffee and croissant

One of my perks of French life – coffee and croissant

Unless you are at Starbucks, a double hazelnut frappucino with whipped cream and caramel syrup is probably not going to happen.

It can depend on the region you are visiting, but here in the south-east, ‘un café’ is a small black coffee/espresso, ‘café crème’ is usually coffee with milk and steamed milk so has an element of froth to it, ‘café au lait’ is a coffee with milk but generally not frothy, ‘une noisette’ is a small black coffee with a dash of milk.  Confused? 🙂

20.  Bread:  It is well known globally that French people love a baguette (French loaf).

There are also options for grain breads, wheatmeal breads and all sorts of artisan breads.  Buy your bread at a boulangerie as they are experts.

Specialty breads that you may find easily in your home country can surprisingly be hard to locate here in France or have limited range – bagels, flatbreads, foccacias, crumpets, muffins, wraps, gluten-free options.

If  you have wheat allergies, the best places to source bread are at bio/organic stores. Some examples of French chains are La Vie Claire, and Biocoop.

Have you found my Top 20 tips has helped you on your quest to understand ‘la vie en France’ ? Do you have any tips for understanding life here?  I would love to hear your own experiences via Facebook or Twitter

Accommodation throughout France

Accommodation throughout France

Activities – GOLFE JUAN / VALLAURIS (Carnaval, Wednesday 5 February 2014)

It’s Carnaval time across the French Riviera!   The most popular carnival in this region is of course the Nice Carnaval beginning mid-February, however smaller towns also celebrate in their own grand style.

This Wednesday, the carnival comes to Golfe Juan and Vallauris – the theme is Darnéga, King of the Sea so wear costumes, bring some confetti and follow the street parade.

image courtesy of Vallauris Tourism Office

image courtesy of Vallauris Tourism Office

Free entry!  Golfe Juan and Vallauris have flat street surfaces and are paved so accessible for everyone.

GOLFE JUAN: 10a.m – Kids parade departs from M.L. Gachon school in Golfe Juan

VALLAURIS: 4.30p.m – Kids parade departs Espace GrandJean for Espace Loisirs in Vallauris

King of the Sea (programme courtesy of Tourism Office of Vallauris)

King of the Sea (programme courtesy of Tourism Office of Vallauris)

 

Does technology help or hinder our lives?

There have always been rumours that iPod’s are going to be non-existent within the next 10 years, and Facebook membership is on a decline. Would you have believed that 5 years ago?

I remember cassette tapes were the newest way to listen to music (luckily, I was born outside the ‘just’ vinyl records era!), the first release of brick-sized mobile phones and our very first dishwasher and DVD player at our home.

Tech advances & innovation

I love reading about future technology – it is fascinating, inspiring and scary – but with all the changes seen each generation that passes, it is inevitable that technology across most industries will have an ever-increasing presence in the lives of people.

There are many family-orientated technological gadgets and devices that we have purchased that simply did not exist decades ago – audio/visual baby monitors, miniature laptops with touch screen educational programmes, seat-swivelling car seats for ease of loading our son into the car….yes we bought into the gloss and glare of how these things would make our lives easier….until the baby monitor started beeping randomly at 3 a.m, the laptop chewed through batteries constantly, the easy-to-use swivel handle on the car seat miraculously gets stuck when loading our son and 3 bags of groceries into the car as an impatient driver waits for our carpark space!

So, does technology help or hinder our lives?

Here are some technological innovations which are certain to alter the lives of persons with reduced mobility:

Norio, is a robot is operated by tourists with reduced mobility who would like to access visitor rooms not located on the ground floor at château d’Oiron in the Deux-Sèvres region in France (Norio’s name is Oiron in reverse, clever huh? 🙂

Tourists use a joystick to manoeuvre Norio around the visitor rooms, and in return Norio relays audio and high-definition videos about the displays back to a big screen on the ground floor.

During testing of the robot’s navigation, one wheelchair-bound resident living in a nearby village remarked that it was the first time she had visited the château in her 40 years of life.

Norio is free to use for travellers with reduced mobility (reservation in advance), who also receive free entrance to the château as well as their accompanying carers.  It would be brilliant to see this concept spread as France has many heritage buildings that are not tourist-optimised for everyone, and the 2005 Accessibility Law in France has only just put in place deadlines for public accessibility to be improved.

I am yet to receive a reply on what languages Norio displays. Imagine how robots in the future will further enhance tourism for everyone at historical sites.

Norio robot at a French Château

Norio robot at a French Château

Air Access, is a concept that will transform airline travel for persons with reduced mobility.  I have been following this prototype with high interest as my background lies with the travel industry, and I’d love to see this product in active installation on most major airlines within 10 years, if not sooner.

It is intended to ease the transition from passenger gate to the aircraft, and it means a PRM / PMR (person with reduced mobility / person avec mobilité réduite) will have a closer passenger experience to that which an able-bodied person may have.

It consists of 2 parts:  (1) a detachable wheelchair for transporting passengers on and off the aircraft, and (2) a fixed frame aisle-seat on the aircraft.  The passenger is wheeled onto the aircraft and when beside the fixed frame seat, the wheels pivot to enable the wheelchair portion to ‘lock on’ to the fixed frame seat without the passenger having to stand up.

Air Access model (image: PriestmanGoode)

Air Access model (image: PriestmanGoode)

This  innovation would cut down claims from EU Air Passenger Rights regarding damaged mobility equipment, and the safety of the passenger is also increased as they would not be handled by cabin crew to and from their seats. In-flight, in the event of using the bathroom they would only require assistance to ‘unlock’ the chair and they could then wheel to the bathroom.  The seat pad is also removable meaning passengers who require varying needs of support can alter this.

My thoughts around the challenges for airlines holding back on installation:  The product would need streamlining with each carriers cabin design, however Air Access seats could be installed on most rows, allowing for a group of PRM’s to travel together (e.g. a Paralympics team), and airlines would not see any decrease in revenue as the seats can be used by all passengers – abled-bodied or not.

Air Access concept (image: PriestmanGoode)

Air Access concept (image: PriestmanGoode)

iBot, a stair-climbing wheelchair uses similar balancing technology to a Segway. Stairs are everywhere and the vision of the iBot is to give wheelchair-bound people access to all terrains. Unfortunately, the price is prohibitive at this stage for many people but the future potential is huge.

iBot - self-balancing, stair-climbing robot

iBot – self-balancing, stair-climbing robot

Please share this post – I’d love to hear feedback about these innovations!  Comment below, or drop me a line on Twitter  or Facebook.

MR.CARDBOARD made in Germany inspired by Google Cardboard

TRANSPORT – Régiolis, the first 100% accessible train

French train stations can be difficult to navigate if you have reduced mobility, are sight-impaired, are wheelchair bound, or like me, able-bodied but traveling with a small child in a baby buggy/stroller.

Often, signage is confusing, there can be lots of stairs at the station and a lack of elevators (or elevators exist but are out of order!), public toilets are locked and the attendant is AWOL and someone to help doesn’t speak your language. And that is BEFORE you actually attempt to get onto a train….

But, a light is shining on the horizon. French train stations – and trains – are seeing a great overhaul and update to improve service and accessibility for ALL passengers.

One of these improvements is the introduction of the Alstom Régiolis trains.

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Régiolis train – 100% accessible for all passengers

The Régiolis trains are the first certified 100% accessible trains for persons with reduced mobility, and have other improvements to facilitate ease of journeys:

– Dedicated spaces for wheelchair-bound travelers near doors, with ramps to facilitate entry/exit, SOS buttons with interphones and 2 seat spaces for accompanying passengers.

– Information screens visible and audible from all seating areas, including designated priority seats.

– Adapted seat heights for travelers with guide dogs to allow the dog to lie underneath the seat.

– More pronounced contrasts of the interiors and entry/exit doors for people who are sight-impaired.

– More spacious toilets with room for wheelchair-bound travellers to manoeuvre, manual locks, call buttons and automatic buttons with braille and lighting.

The Régiolis trains have already been rolled out in 2013 to some regions in France (Aquitaine, Lorraine etc) with the Provence Alps Cote d’Azur expecting integration of the new trains in this region over 2014 and 2015.

A welcome addition to transport options in this region.